Terrafugia Unveils New TF-X Project, Talks Future of Flying Cars

5/6/13Follow @gthuang

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built yet, but the vehicle concept includes a roomier interior than Transition (which only seats two), and a pretty striking liftoff and landing mechanism.

Like Transition, the TF-X will have normal-looking wings, but on the end of each wing will be a motorized pod that contains a helicopter-like propeller (see images below). The propellers will be activated on take-off and landing, but will be folded away at cruising speed.

Another big difference with the TF-X is that takeoff, landing, and driving on the ground will use an electric propulsion system, while long-range flying will use a gas turbine. Dietrich isn’t giving any numbers, but he says the new vehicle will be “significantly faster” in the air than Transition, and it will also be a lot heavier. (I’m guessing they’re shooting for over 200 mph in the air, faster than most helicopters.)

And about that vertical liftoff: you probably won’t be taking off from your driveway, or landing at the office. The vehicle will need a roughly 100-foot diameter of open space to take off. But that’s still more convenient than finding a runway.

Not surprisingly, plenty of companies around the world are working on vehicles with similar capabilities. Pipistrel, a light aircraft manufacturer in Slovenia, just unveiled a concept design for an electrically powered vertical-takeoff craft with eight propellers on two wings. AgustaWestland, a U.K.-based company, recently demonstrated an electric tilt-rotor aircraft called “Project Zero,” which has two large adjustable propellers embedded in its wings. And, perhaps most intriguing, Silicon Valley stealth startup Zee.Aero has a new patent for a “personal aircraft” that has vertical-lift rotors, tandem wings, and forward-thrust propellers. (There are some crazy rumors about who’s behind this company, but they are unsubstantiated.)

In any case, Terrafugia’s TF-X would be the only personal aircraft I’m aware of that could be drivable on roads. That also means in bad weather, when it’s dangerous to fly, Terrafugia’s vehicle gives its pilot the option to drive on the ground.

“As these vehicles get out there, it’s likely there will wind up being more and more little takeoff and landing zones,” Dietrich says. If all goes well and this sort of personal aviation becomes commonplace—a huge if, indeed—city parks, fields, and parking lots might set aside space for it, he says. (Imagine landing in Boston Common, folding up your wings, and parking in the garage underground.)

Listening to Dietrich, you start to realize the full scope of Terrafugia’s vision—but also the magnitude of its challenges.

Which brings us to the self-flying part. One of the main reasons Dietrich decided to pursue the TF-X project in the first place was the regulatory environment. In early 2012, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act, which (among other things) gives the Federal Aviation Administration a green light to invest in new technologies, including next-generation air traffic control systems. One of the mandates, according to Dietrich: by 2020, all aircraft will be required to broadcast their GPS position and velocity to all other craft.

“I thought, ‘Holy cow, this infrastructure is really going to be there,’” he says. “This really does enable a semi-autonomous system to guide you where you need to go. The computer will have all that information that you don’t have [now] in the cockpit.”

So it sounds like the self-flying part of the vision is largely a software problem—albeit a big one. To sell it to the FAA, though, Terrafugia will need to position the technology as not just safe, but a way to improve upon current safety standards for light aircraft. (Autonomous military drones are one thing; personal aviation is another.)

That’s much easier said than done. … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1257663063 Charles Beyer

    I can’t wait for these to hit the market!

    • Ray

      It’s never going to happen. Do you know how much work goes into making sure the planes that are currently in the air from crashing into each other in the air on on the strip? Multiply that by about a few million cars and you’ll have a disaster in the making

      • http://www.facebook.com/doodly.stuudmuffin Doodly Stuudmuffin

        Yeah. And I imagine drunk drivers crashing down onto the rest of us. Great.

  • flukes

    “They promised us flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Art-Salmons/100001016539462 Art Salmons

    I hope they’re good at engineering, because they’re BAD at concept art.

  • Walter Jeffries

    Flying cars are a really bad idea. As shown by the accident reports the vast majority of people can not handle driving in two dimensions. Add another dimension and the accident rate will skyrocket. Add altitude and speed and the death rate will climb even more dramatically. Perhaps we should consider this evolution at work. Call the car “Darwin”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/TomEWilliams Tom Williams

      Hopefully with this people would rely on the self-flying aspect much more than manual controls.

  • Laughing Skeptic

    Clearly this thing can’t fly slowly, which makes it very dangerous as a commuter vehicle. I don’t see a mention of a ballistic parachute, without one a power failure will result in a certain fatal crash. A CarterCopter makes way more sense for point-to-point commuting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dokidokinyannyan Dokidoki Nyannyan

    I saw 2 self-driving cars in the span of 5 minutes today and yet I saw 0 self-flying cars.

  • zdaxxy

    This is still using dated technology. How about working towards anti-gravity devices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Keller/1549884122 Jeremy Keller

    I think the TF-X is my favourite flying car to date, despite being just a concept. I would therefore like it to enter commercial production in the not too distant future, and not have to wait till next decade for it. I think CG should be able to see to that.
    Furthermore, the Maverick, referred to as the flying car that does, already appears to be on the market. I would now like such technology to catch on, and catch on in style. I think the Maverick resembles a pre-war racing car to some extent. I therefore think Terrafugia should design their answer to the Maverick. I don’t really think the 40mph top air speed is much of a handicap.
    I am very much in favour of flying cars and would even like them and flying cars to displace the conventional aeroplanes and helicopters altogether, except perhaps for special occasions.
    I am featured on the BBC website and anxious to bring my weblinks to everyone’s attention. To find me on Facebook just search for:
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  • jeremykeller

    On the 9th of August of 2012 I dreamt that a lorry could be transformed into a passenger aircraft using the hidden wings it had. I believe it was supposed to offer a service to Ireland.
    At the time I was convinced the technology had finally arrived. I was therefore later disappointed to learn that it was just a dream.

  • jeremykeller

    Will the TF-X really enter commercial production next decade? After all, was the de Havilland Comet unveiled as a concept back in 1940? Visually the TF-X is my favourite flying car to date, despite being just a concept. But what makes Terrafugia think it’ll be commercially successful? So many flying car ventures seem to have failed in the past. Furthermore, I do believe the Moller Skycar was already a concept back in 1999.

    I am very much in favour of flying cars and would even like flying cars and flying saucers to displace the conventional aeroplanes and helicopters altogether, except perhaps for special occasions.

    Already the Maverick, referred to as the flying car that does, seems to work. I would therefore like the technology to catch on, and catch on in style. I certainly don’t think the 40mph air speed should be considered a handicap. I therefore think the flying cars using the Maverick technology should resemble the pre-war racing cars, but with extra seats.
    I am featured on the BBC website and anxious to bring my weblinks to everyone’s attention. To find me on Facebook just search for:
    car
    flying car
    Maverick
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